Spoilers • 15 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
Marketing an experience is always a tricky thing. If it's something you can't get anywhere else - say an amazing theme park ride - it's difficult to explain to people what they're missing until they experience it for themselves. But if it's something more accessible, like a movie or a book, you can release snippets or summaries of it and let people work out for themselves whether they're interested. The only trouble with that is that you can find yourself giving away more and more of the plot and the experience in order to stimulate people's appetite. I've read back-cover blurbs which gave away plot twists occurring in the last fifth of a book and most of us have seen movie trailers which contain all the good bits of the movie. That sort of marketing is very short-termist. You bring in the customers and their money, but you send them away disgruntled. By revealing too much in the advertising, you've strengthened the marketing and undermined the product itself. The marketing has become more important than the customer experience. We have a word for that in Britain: it's known as a 'swizz'.
The problem gets worse when you think about who your marketing is acting upon and how you go about swaying those people. I think of it like a target or a dartboard: there's an inner circle of people who don't need marketing to; they've already decided to be customers. Then there's people in the outermost ring who aren't going to buy your product whatever you say. Marketing, just like political campaigning or seduction techniques, is aimed at those who might be undecided.
The problem with undermining the product in favour of the marketing is that in people terms what you're doing is punishing the loyal customer in order to entice the indifferent one. That can't be the right order of priorities.
A blatant example of this faulty approach is the whole idea of Next Week On... trailers. The last thirty seconds of a TV programme is devoted to telling you as much of next week's plot and highlights as possible before you can find the remote and turn it off. (I send recordings of Doctor Who episodes to Anna in America and always edit out the 'Next Week' teasers). If I'm planning to watch it anyway, why do I want the plot twists of the first fifteen minutes revealed? So I can sit there and watch characters on screen struggle to solve mysteries I already know the answer to? No, because that's not fun. It's for all those who were wavering, who aren't really sure they like this show, who might give it one more try if next week looks promising enough.
For those who are fans, it's rather insulting and irritating. It's akin to wandering past a queue to see The Mousetrap and shouting 'The butler did it' (except doing so back in the days before everyone knew that the butler did it). Even more annoying for me, is the five seconds before a TV show comes on, when the announcer just has time to blurt out 'And it's trouble for the team now, as Sally is kidnapped and Bob has to work out whether it's an inside job'. Arrrgggghhh! When you think of the months of work that go in to making an hour of television, the thought that a hastily scripted five-second link is allowed to spoil the surprises of the first act is baffling to me.
So what's to be done? Personally, I have three solutions to this sort of thing. One is to start a trend of honest marketing. I've said it many times before, but there's no product so great that a marketing team won't try to create a sense of anti-climax in the customer by overstating its merits. Marketing teams compete with other marketing teams to outdo each other and to grab the attention of the customer. They don't try to match customer to product (as though they were a dating agency) they say whatever they can to bag as many customers as possible (like lotharios on the pull). And in doing so they risk leaving a large number of customers feeling used, instead of making a smaller number feel special.
And secondly, business in general needs to learn to cut its cloth better. We need to learn to cater to niches and spend our budgets on that basis. Instead of always trying to attract everyone to every product, we need to create products that a subset of the populace will love and accept that the majority won't be interested. And we need to spend our money on that basis, so that we can afford to be a hit with only a slice of the total population.
And following on from that point, we should endeavour to shift the balance back towards organic growth of audience or customer base. Not everything can be a big splash and an instant success. Not everything can have a huge PR push. Let products win over their critics rather than drown them out - in fact plan for it. It's a good idea because it provides a much better quality control filter than allowing ad spend to carry the day. Retailers who promoted books praised by readers over books supported by publishers would lose short-term revenue but build longer-term custom. TV companies who counted the number of loyal viewers a program had rather than the number who tuned in for a week would end up refocusing their efforts towards niche TV that its target viewership loved rather than trying to find shows that could attract the biggest audience.
That's not to say that the huge PR splash doesn't have its place, but most of us have learned that it tells us nothing about whether we will enjoy a book or a movie. We know it's as likely to be a trick as not. So it's not as though it's a system that works particularly well as it is.
Imagine an alternate world where advertising was banned and only customer and viewer feedback was publicised. There would be a lot wrong with it, I'm sure. But struggling to find good books to read and entertaining (though possibly very low budget) TV shows to watch wouldn't be one of the drawbacks.